Forefront promotes suicide prevention through hope and passion for change
UPDATE: Forefront raised nearly $75,000 in donations before and during the fundraising launch event. With standing room only, more than 300 people flocked the Husky Union Building to support Forefront’s suicide prevention efforts.
More recently, Forefront has been awarded a three-year Campus Suicide Prevention grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to launch Husky Help & Hope, a comprehensive suicide prevention initiative at the UW’s Seattle campus. The grant will “increase the capacity of the campus community to identify, refer and treat students at risk for suicide, and keep campus policies and programs in line with national best practices and recommendations.”
The Husky Help & Hope plan includes communication-focused goals, such as providing workshops for journalism students, campus newspaper staff, and local journalists on responsible reporting of suicide. Department of Communication faculty Randy Beam and Sue Lockett-John are working closely with this initiative.
Nearly one million people worldwide die by suicide each year, amounting to one death every 40 seconds. In this country, the timespan lengthens to 15 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but suicide continues to be a leading cause of death in Washington State, claiming more lives than motor-vehicle accidents, homicide, and HIV/AIDS combined.
Assistant professor at the UW School of Social Work Jennifer Stuber and suicide prevention clinician, trainer, and advocate Sue Eastgard co-founded the organization Forefront to combat the state’s high suicide rate. Forefront is hosting a fundraising awareness event on September 10 – World Suicide Prevention Day.
“The point of the event is to raise awareness of suicide prevention and to raise awareness of the problem of suicide specifically in Washington State,” Stuber said, “and Forefront as an entity to be responsive to this problem.”
The organization was created in memory of Matt Adler – a 40-yeard-old attorney who took his own life in 2011. Adler was Stuber’s husband and since his death, Stuber has done everything she can to understand what was going on in his mind leading up to his suicide.
“I actually got his medical records and I learned that the mental health professionals that were treating him knew that he was suicidal, but didn’t take action or behave in a way that could have potentially saved his life,” Stuber said.
With a background in health policy, Stuber went to work and started reaching out to people who have expertise in suicide.
“I literally went one by one to each of these experts on campus, and outside of campus, and said this is unbelievable. Does this resonate with you?” Stuber said.
Stuber found experts in six departments at the UW: psychiatry, psychology, educational psychology, nursing, communication, and her own – social work. She learned that many mental health professionals never receive any training on this topic. She worked with Washington State Representative Tina Orwall to pass the first law of its kind in the nation, requiring health professionals in Washington State to have mandatory training in suicide prevention. The law is named after Adler, and Stuber continues to reform health policy with a focus on secondary schools and intervention among youth who may be at risk for suicide.
BREAKING THE STIGMA
Before her husband’s death, Stuber was already working with communication lecturer Sue Lockett John in the Coalition to Improve Mental Health Reporting, which was part of a state transformation grant that focused on the problem of stigma.
“That is where this work began and we planned to continue it in the area of suicide coverage, which also has a huge problem with stigma,” said Lockett John, who directs communication efforts for Forefront. “People don’t want to talk about it, therefore it’s not treated as a public health issue, it’s treated with episodic framing as opposed to thematic.”
Forefront will be working with the media on one-on-one communication through workshops and also teaching people in the community how to talk to the media about suicide.
“Journalists have learned about the problem of contagion, so they are very cautious, and rightly so, in covering deaths by suicide,” Lockett John said. “We will work with them on how to do it sensitively and appropriately, give them recommendations to do it in ways that doesn’t sensationalize suicide and doesn’t glamorize it.”
Communication professor Randy Beam, who holds the title of Dart Professor of Journalism and Trauma, is also interested in how the media deals with suicide and joined Forefront’s cause, serving on its advisory board.
“I became interested in this as I saw college journalists try to cover stories about the deaths of their classmates,” Beam said, “and it turns out that there is a small body of literature in the public health area that points to some pretty profound affects that media coverage of suicide can have.”
Beam said suicide remains to be a bit of a mystery without a concrete cause, like smoking is to lung cancer, and the fact that human beings are the only creatures who overtly seek to take their own lives.
Journalism professor Karen Rathe also sees the importance of breaking the stigma. As a supporter of Forefront she said, “Journalists frame issues for us; the words they use, the information they include (or not) can have a powerful effect over time in either changing or reinforcing beliefs or stereotypes.”
With training sessions, Rathe said journalists must be open to changes in how best to describe certain issues and groups of people.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
A main myth surrounding the issue of suicide is that it can’t be prevented, and that asking someone if they’ve had suicidal thoughts will drive them to take their own life.
“I think people are incredibly uncomfortable talking about it and people have this attitude that suicide is not preventable,” Stuber said. “There’s so much shame associated with it and this feeling that someone killed themselves so they must be really weak and selfish, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
Stuber said that suicide is about ending pain when a person is at the point where they are completely hopeless.
“There’s nothing selfish about it; in fact, that person believes that they’re helping the people around them by taking their own life because they become such a burden,” Stuber said. “That’s truly what goes on in the minds of most suicidal people. So there are so many myths about it in our culture that are perpetuated by overly simplistic accounts in the media or no account of really what’s happening.”
While the Forefront launch event highlights a heavy topic, some of the people involved are taking their own grief and turning it into something positive.
“We’re celebrating the fact that we’re bringing hope,” Lockett John said. “We’re taking comprehensive, creative, and innovative steps – and that’s worthy of celebrating.”While the Forefront launch event highlights a heavy topic, some of the people involved are taking their own grief and turning it into something positive.
Forefront’s awareness fundraising event is on Tuesday, September 10 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Lyceum Room in the Husky Union Building (HUB). RSVP here.